30 Apr 2015

NZers missing Chinese chances

8:03 pm on 30 April 2015

A new report suggests this country risks missing out on opportunities in China if the amount of people learning Mandarin remains low.

It suggests New Zealand's relationship with China is imbalanced: it is this country's biggest trading partner, but most people's understanding of its language and culture is lacking.

Chinese characters and language

Chinese characters and language Photo: 123RF

The report, titled A Crisis of Complacency? by the China New Zealand Council, said for every million dollars of exports to China, only two school students in this country are learning Mandarin, compared to 63 for French, 31 for Spanish and 10 for Japanese.

According to the Ministry of Education, 4,218 New Zealand secondary students studied Mandarin in 2014, but more than 20,000 studied French.

Council executive director Pat English said remaining complacent about learning Mandarin could jeopardise this country's chance to make the most of its economic relationship with the world's second largest economy.

Mr English said a collaborative approach was needed to get more people to learn Mandarin.

"New Zealand's too small and the problems and the issue is too large - so I think aggregating response. So it's Ministry of Education, it's Confucius Institute, it's Asia New Zealand Foundation, it's a lot of other organisations getting together to do this."

He said secondary schools needed to prepare for the expected demand from about a 25 percent jump in primary school students studying Mandarin in 2014 from the year before.

Principal economist at Institute of Economic Research Shamubeel Eaqub said he agreed that more focus should be placed on learning Mandarin.

"We have a lot of kids who are still learning French, which is a beautiful language, but that is not where our economic future is.

"If we are going to encourage people to learn in the kinds of things that will create future job opportunities, we need to think about putting more resources into [Mandarin] language acquisition, both through primary school and secondary school."

Julie Sandilands, who has been studying Mandarin for about six years, said contrary to common perception, learning the language was relatively easy.

"Once you're like, 'These are the tones, that's part of the language, and I've accepted they've got a crazy writing system, that I have to change my pronunciation', then beyond that point, you don't have to deal with irregular verbs or verb conjugations, or any other stuff that makes languages difficult."

But photographer Sean Shadbolt, who has been learning Mandarin for about the same time, said it was a highly complex language.

"There's so much is the Chinese language, in terms of stories behind the language, and also in terms of where Chinese might see themselves in the world."

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